Into the Wild

Living closer to nature is the new American Dream, but are we loving nature to death? One CALS lab is showing just how far we’ve pushed the boundaries between us and the wilderness—and what it may cost us.

JUST OFF A WINDING, NARROW ROAD in Wisconsin’s Baraboo Range, a gravel driveway cuts into the forested margins of Devil’s Lake State Park and leads to a new log cabin sitting in a small clearing. If you closed your eyes and imagined the perfect house in the woods, it might look like this. The sun-speckled roof, half shaded by a rustling green canopy. Bird feeders swaying from tree branches that nearly brush the front porch. Flower beds cradling clumps of color, resplendent against the brown leaf litter of the forest floor. Thoreau would’ve happily stretched out his legs here, not far from where an inspired Leopold took up his pen. It seems an ideal human complement to untrammeled nature-a soft, blurred line between domesticity and wilderness. Yet to the trained eye, all is not well in this Eden. Which is why Gregorio Gavier Pizarro is tromping into the nearby woods where there are no trails.

People want to live closer to nature, which is a good thing. But by building houses there, they are destroying the very thing they sought out in the first place.

Sweat drips from Pizarro’s nose and onto the screen of a handheld GPS device as he winds his way through the forest with a familiarity bred from repeated visits over the last two years. Waving away the persistent swarms of mosquitoes, he pauses every few yards to point at a plant and call out its name. They sound pleasant enough-Japanese barberry, honeysuckle, European buckthorn, Rosa multiflora. But these plants don’t belong here. They just act like they do, proliferating across the forest understory, shoving native plants aside and changing the dynamics of entire ecosystems. They hint at a harder edge to the bucolic boundaries of house and wood.

And they’re everywhere. Pizarro, a graduate student in forest and wildlife ecology, began his research with a hypothesis that invasive species were linked to human land use and housing development. But when he started sampling random plots around Devil’s Lake, he found so many invaders that he thought he would never make sense of his data. “Everything was just totally invaded,” he says.

Eventually, he found a pattern in his maps. A ring of invasive plants forms around houses in the Baraboo Range as the species establish themselves on the fringe between yard and forest. Then they emanate outward, pushing deeper into the woods. The invasion slows as you look further into the woods-the largest intact swath of upland forest in southern Wisconsin. In places such as Baxter’s Hollow, 5,000 acres of woodland protected from development by the Nature Conservancy, native plants and animals still hold dominion. But in most of the Baraboo Range, each new gravel drive cutting into the woods brings human influence with it.

Pizarro’s work is just one chapter of a story playing out on the fringe of civilization, a shifting boundary that ecologists refer to as the wildland-urban interface. At this edge, some of the most pressing conflicts between humans and nature occur, from the property damage caused by raging wildfires to the eroding habitat for forest-dwelling species to run-ins with predatory animals. And to see what is truly going on with the wildland-urban interface-to really separate the forest from the trees-you can’t just focus on a single house in the woods. You need to plot out that edge at its widest scale, finding where it lies, what moves it forward and what stands in its path. And that is where Pizarro’s advisor, Volker Radeloff PhD’98, enters the picture. He has his eye on the Baraboo Range-and a thousand other places like it-to tell the story of what’s happening to the edge of the wilderness, where people and nature meet in often inharmonious ways.